ST. HELENA — Before the offering of 3-liter bottles of wine or fanciful gifts and getaways, visitors at Auction Napa Valley encountered the roots of the valley’s identity — literally and symbolically.
Four neat piles marked a path to the white canopy housing Saturday afternoon’s showpiece live auction. Along a golf fairway at the Meadowood Resort, an elaborate arrangement of grapevines, vine clippings and stones adorned the greens a few yards from where bidders, vintners and others partook of conversation, glasses of wine and the late-spring sun.
The unusual arrangement of vines and sound formed a framework greeting bidders at the 32nd annual Auction Napa Valley. For this year’s chairs, the Chappellet winemaking family, it also served as a reminder of the craft’s unceasing presence throughout the year, long after the last auction guests leave Napa County.
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The concept slowly flowered “for most of the past year, in Mom’s imagination and mine,” Carissa Chappellet said an hour before the auction.
“It comes from what she would see here in the valley,” she said of her mother, Molly Chappellet, founder of Chappellet Vineyard and Winery and organizer of this year’s auction weekend.
From Monday through Saturday morning, workers fashioned truckloads of old vines, wheat-like sheaves of clippings and stakes into a panorama of living sculpture on the Meadowood grounds.
“The metal pile over there, those are stakes that usually are left in a ball and taken away,” Carissa Chappellet said. “But my mother saw that and had a light go on in her head, and she said ‘No, don’t haul that away; that’s art!’”
“I think it’s a fabulous display — earthy, contemporary and beautiful,” said Maria Stel, a Clinic Ole community director who had a prime view of the installation while serving wine as one of the auction volunteers. “I first saw it on Wednesday and I was just blown away.”
“It’s really creative, very natural and creative,” said Sheila Clary, who traveled from Chicago to bid at the wine auction. “I’ve been coming for 12 years, and here they do a good job giving us something new each year, so we’re not coming to the same event each year.”
Inside the resort’s Vintners’ Room and on the courtyard outside, would-be winners scanned table displays for the auction’s 40 lots. The prizes ranged from 40-guest banquets at a Carneros winery to a vacation getaway in Paris and the Champagne winemaking region of France. A curvaceous blue Jaguar XK150 from the 1950s gleamed on the lawn under the noon sun, awaiting its new owner at auction’s end.
But no lot display drew as many onlookers as one that was decidedly not for sale — not to mention clawed and sharp-toothed.
“If you saw a cheetah during that Hyundai commercial in the Super Bowl ... it was him,” Dale Anderson said, pointing at his four-legged charge Tango lounging on a metal table. “And if you saw a cheetah in that Adidas spot, that was Tango too,” the trainer continued while half a dozen women took snapshots on their iPhones of the 110-pound, 6-year-old cheetah as it casually licked a handler’s palm.
Tango’s presence was meant to call attention to the Chappellet family’s offering, Lot 31, which featured a safari journey to game preserves in South Africa and Zambia. A safari tent stood nearby, its open side displaying a miniature studio of artworks made by Lygia Chappellet, Molly’s daughter, on her African travels.
Even in a field of lots including such novelties as a place aboard an America’s Cup boat, the safari offer impressed another vintner at the auction.
“I’ve never been to Africa, and that would be the dream of my life,” said Amelia Moran Ceja of Ceja Vineyards.
The return of fair weather at the auction, with no hint of the clouds that drenched unseasonable rain upon the 2011 event, left guests grateful.
“We Midwesterners have to come out to find the sunshine, I guess,” chuckled Leon Dreimann, a Chicagoan who has bid at Auction Napa Valley for a dozen years and formerly was CEO of Salton, the kitchen appliance company.
Over time, he said, the value of the auction has extended far beyond the bidding tent.
“As you come here year after year, you make friends of other bidders; you find people with common interests,” Dreimann said. “We even meet people on airplanes who it turns out were faces in the crowd at the auction, and then we become friends.”